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Let My People Give: Book review of "Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy"

Tevi Troy

For a group that makes up only 2–3 percent of the total U.S. population, Jews represent a disproportionately large share of the wealthiest Americans (about a quarter of the Forbes 400) and of the nation’s biggest donors (four of the country’s top seven donors in 2009 were Jews). Nearly half of the 40 billionaires who have signed the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge—to give at least half of their wealth to charity—are Jewish. Much has been written about these twin phenomena of Jewish wealth and Jewish philanthropy, but very little about the question of philanthropy among Orthodox Jews, who make up a small but growing percentage—approximately 20 percent—of the total Jewish population.

It is not surprising that Orthodoxy’s philanthropic angle has been largely ignored up to now, as Orthodox Jews have generally been seen as both poorer and less engaged in the wider world than the rest of the American Jewish population. In fact, it is perhaps surprising that the subject is at all relevant today, as it was not that long ago that American Orthodox Judaism was widely considered to be demographically marginal. Over the last two decades, however, Orthodoxy has made an impressive demographic recovery from its nadir at about 5 percent of the nation’s Jewish population. Orthodox Jews tend to marry earlier, have more children, and intermarry far less frequently than Conservative and Reform Jews. In addition, Orthodox parents are far more likely to send their children to Jewish day schools, which is an important predictor of generational Jewish continuity. As a result, about 27 percent of Jews under 18 are Orthodox, which suggests that the Orthodox population is likely to continue growing relative to the rest of the Jewish population. Given these trends, many Orthodox Jews exhibit a certain degree of demographic triumphalism, which does not endear them to their Conservative and Reform co-religionists.

For these reasons, those interested in philanthropy, and in particular Jewish philanthropy, cannot ignore developments in the Orthodox world. Fortunately, a new book— Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy, edited by Yossi Prager of the Avi Chai Foundation —takes a look at this growing community and tries to generate a profile of how Orthodoxy’s philanthropic interests are likely to evolve.

Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy is an anthology, generated from papers given at a 2008 conference on the subject of Orthodox philanthropy. As a result, the chapters are somewhat inconsistent, ranging from the fascinating to the barely accessible. The book is divided into five sections: sociology and history; Orthodoxy and federations; halachic (Jewish law) perspectives; contemporary philanthropy; and the role of the rabbi in fundraising.

Non-Jewish (and many Jewish) readers should beware: the section on Jewish law can be somewhat opaque to the uninitiated, as it includes many Hebrew phrases and even textual insertions, often without translation. One essay, in particular, “Jewish Philanthropy—Whither?”—by the learned and well-respected Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein—seems almost intentionally inaccessible to the general reader, dependent as it is on both biblical and Talmudic texts, in the original languages, but also in the English style that he chooses. To wit: “However, insofar as I have emphasized the importance of contextual judgment in the light of significant variables, I have fallen short of the precise optimal balance some readers may have sought.” Translation: don’t look for straight answers from Rabbi Lichtenstein.

Outside of that one section, however, the book is far more accessible, with Hebrew and Yiddish phrases mostly both translated and transliterated. One will still have to get through certain basic words that are untranslated— tzedakah, for example, which means “righteousness” but generally refers to the concept of charity —but the interested reader will persevere, and likely benefit from doing so.

As Margy-Ruth Davis and Perry Davis point out, Orthodox Jews are different from the rest of their co-religionists, with more competing demands on their money “that find little parallel in general society.” Between the cost of tuition for private schools, the cost of keeping kosher and Sabbath hospitality, and the cost of Jewish ritual (prayer and learning books, palm fronds and citrons for Sukkot, and preparing expensive Seder meals for Passover), Orthodox Jews are strapped for cash. At the same time, the authors note, they also have “more claims on our charitable dollars from within our own communities.”

These competing demands open up the larger question of whether and how much Orthodox Jews should give to the established Jewish charitable federations. These federations tend to dominate giving in local communities and distribute money according to their determination of communal need. They are a controversial subject in the Orthodox world, as they are perceived as giving short shrift to Orthodox causes such as Jewish education, and Prager devotes a whole section and three papers to the issue. Barry Shrage argues for Orthodox engagement with the federations as a way of “avoiding moral isolationism.” Marvin Schick takes a different approach, arguing that the Orthodox should “get over the residual inferiority complex that impels some to mistakenly believe that it is a mitzvah [religious obligation] to be involved [with the federations and their secular activities].” At the same time, he worries that his “words will be read as totally negative, closing the door on relations between the Orthodox and the rest of American Jewry.” (He is right to worry.) Finally, Michael Berger takes a geographic approach, and “cautiously conclude[s] that greater Orthodox cooperation with, and support of, local federations appears likely to grow over the next few decades in most locales outside the traditional population centers,” such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami.

Berger also draws the distinction between the “integrationist” and “separatist” wings of Orthodoxy, with the separatist, or non-modern, more likely to be the recipient of philanthropy but also less willing to engage with the broader Jewish community. In the first chapter, Jacob Ukeles recounts how Samuel Heilman, a renowned sociologist of Orthodoxy, came up with an insightful polling question designed to separate these two Orthodox sub-populations: “How important to you is giving children a college or university education?” According to Ukeles’ research, those who valued a college education less had larger household sizes, lower incomes, and were far more likely to live in the borough of Brooklyn. Heilman captured the distinction between the populations well. It will be up to Orthodox Jews of both the “modern” and less modern schools to find common ground in the years ahead to make sure that the community gets the greatest possible benefit from their philanthropic efforts, rather than forcing givers to choose between two competing visions.

As this volume shows, there are a host of issues worth examining in the world of Orthodox Jewish philanthropy. Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy offers a good start at looking at these issues, but as Orthodox philanthropy increases in importance, it will keep Prager and his cohort of contributors busy for a long time to come.

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